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28 Years of NBC Thursday Drama Excellence -- Great Streak, But It's Almost Over
March 26, 2009  | By David Bianculli
ER-crippled-guy.jpgI love the way NBC's ERis winding down. Rather than wait for next week's two-hour finale to serve its veteran and current characters, the series has been doing it every week, with moments that are touching, revealing, surprising and eminently satisfying. Shane West, as Dr. Ray Barnett, made a surprise appearance to cap last week's show with a perfect grace note.

SOUTHLAND-09-A09.jpgTonight's penultimate episode (10 ET) is another must-see treat. But next week, ER will end. The week after that, Southland will premiere, continuing a tradition of ambitious quality Thursday NBC dramas that goes back 28 years. Yet no matter what, that streak won't make it to 29...


For most of the 1970s, NBC's final hour of prime time was a mess. Eight shows, over eight seasons, came and went quickly from 1973-1980, including such memorable (or forgettable) flops as Kate Loves a Mystery, the horrendously ill-conceived spinoff of Columbo. Finally, in January 1981, NBC threw a midseason desperation pass that changed everything: Hill Street Blues.

Critics saved it that first year, and the Emmys did the rest. Hill Street changed the cop show, and and the drama series, and TV history forever. And when Hill Street went off the air, NBC moved another Steven Bochco series, L.A. Law, into the Thursday slot, where it thrived until ER replaced it in 1994.

ER has been there ever since. And when it leaves next week, another John Wells drama series, Southland, premieres. But whether it becomes an instant hit, or slides away at season's end, Southland will not stay put in the 10 p.m. ET Thursday slot for NBC, and carry the time-slot streak of quality drama past its 28th year.

la-law.jpgThat's because, this fall, Jay Leno will be there instead. Nothing against Leno, but NBC has just voluntarily sacrificed one of its proudest, most marketable legacies of the past 30 years. There's a big difference between Must-See-TV and May-As-Well-Watch-If-Nothing-Better's-On-TV -- even if NBC doesn't seem to recognize it.

Or care.




Sarah said:

For someone born in 1980 that's my whole life! And even though I didn't watch all the shows I will be there for the ER finale.

The whole Leno thing is awful. I would watch another good scripted series but Leno! He should either retire and let Conan and Jimmy take over or host an American version of Top Gear, which I think he would like better, he can have guests and play with cars. Come on NBC and Jay! (Honestly, having Jay host an American Top Gear is a GREAT idea! Wow! -- David B.)

Comment posted on March 26, 2009 3:28 PM

Carina said:

Well you don't have to have anything against Jay Leno, but I do.

His Tonight Show was cold pablum.

Any genuine laughs came not out of the writing, but out of things other people had written or said (Headlines, Jay-walking.) I could not have been more excited to hear that Conan would be replacing Jay. I was looking forward to not being assaulted with milquetoast programming night after night.

Now NBC is not only keeping Jay on the air but also taking away an hour of programming that could have been great? No thanks.

I hope this fails. I hope NBC ends up looking like a bunch of idiots. Way to guarantee that I'll have to turn to cable instead, NBC.

Comment posted on March 26, 2009 5:22 PM

anondamide said:

Isn't it fair to say that Leno at 10 wasn't exactly NBC's desired idea? AIUI, a few years ago, NBC signed up Conan for 11:30 thinking that Leno's done. Turns out he wasn't and NBC didn't want to lose him, so this half-baked idea for the 10PM slot.

Comment posted on March 27, 2009 2:12 AM

Greg Kibitz said:


Thanks for writing this entry.

As I mentioned in my comments on Fallon's shaky beginnings (that have finally mostly worked themselves out), NBC's idea of a late prime-time (10pm) talk show (Leno or otherwise) just shows how mis-guided NBC is and why they continue to be last in the ratings.

Other than their Great Must-See Thursday Night all they really have left in Prime Time (of any value) are the 10pm Law and Order Series. But as graphic and/or violent as those shows can sometimes be, they can't really be run any earlier. Clearly they are smart enough to insert a the new Sorkin-esque ER-esque drama Southland in place of ER but, as you say, come fall that all ends.

Maybe they will pioneer some new dramas at 9pm (just as CBS does with CSI and ABC does with Lost) but I (like so many others IMO) will be looking elsewhere at 10 pm for something other than more Talk Show. However, my fear is that they will just load up with more reality shows and, as much as I like the few I watch (Apprentice, Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen and every other Survivor), I personally hate most of these because, if I really want a front row ticket the freak show, I just have to go outside or to work or home for a visit).

Sadly the best NBC has come up with of late is Kings and, as cutting edge for TV it may be, it still is not nearly as good as that with which it competes (Simpsons and HBO, Showtime and AMC). And if its competitors were not in multi-play later in the week, I doubt I would watch Kings one iota anyway.

But maybe it is time for one of the traditional networks to finally fail and, if NBC keeps up like this, you know it will be the one. (Once again, you guys are writing comments that are better than my original posts. And I'm not jealous at all. Keep it up. -- David B.)

Comment posted on March 27, 2009 6:35 AM
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